`Rich' and varied arts scene thrives in Howard County

Performers: From music to dance, visual arts and literature, the area has passionate amateurs and skilled professionals.

March 23, 2003|By Rona S. Hirsch | Rona S. Hirsch,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Almost any week, Howard County's performance halls, galleries and studios are alive with visual and performing artists immersed in their craft - rehearsing, exhibiting, teaching, entertaining.

Howard is renowned for its dozens of arts and cultural organizations - many with national reputations and many launched by folks in their living rooms - that span nearly every art form and are embraced by adults and children alike.

"This community is rich in arts appreciation and culture," said Holly Thomas, executive and artistic director of Candlelight Concert Society in Howard County.

One need not drive to Baltimore or Washington to catch a musical, listen to chamber music, mingle at a poetry reading with a Nobel laureate, critique a multimedia arts installation or learn to Irish step-dance. From Ellicott City to Columbia to Clarksville, local groups offer a broad mix of award-winning programs that entertain, provoke and instruct.

The Howard County Arts Council's in-house directory lists about 80 local arts organizations, arts facilities and libraries that offer programs here. "We do have a high quality of arts in the county that is diverse," said Coleen West, the arts council's executive director. "The community is very educated and expects services and programs that reflect their sophistication.

"Our community is unique in the number of arts groups we have for our size," said West, whose organization helps fund local artists. "Obviously there is a need for these groups because there is so much growth in the county, especially in cultural diversity."

The specialties of local organizations range from ballet and belly dancing to Chinese dance and figure skating; from one-of-a-kind art exhibits to displays celebrating local African-American history; from intimate and quirky theater to theater-in-the round.

Among the music groups are a professionally trained chorus, a full orchestra, a community concert band and a concert society that presents nationally known musicians. And the county has not one but two classic and foreign film series.

In December, the arts calendar is filled with productions of Nutcracker and Handle's Messiah. During the summer, residents flock to the country, swing, rock, pop, jazz and bluegrass musicians performing under the stars at outdoor concert programs.

Summer's biggest event is the Columbia Festival of the Arts, Howard County's three-week festival that will showcase in June national and international artists as diverse as Mikhail Baryshnikov, Wynton Marsalis and Second City's National Touring Company.

Many local performing companies take their acts on the road. Dance Dimensions and Eva Anderson Dancers LTD have performed in Europe. Seven years ago, Columbia Concert Band members packed up their trumpets, tubas and euphoniums to play in an exchange program in the Netherlands.

The local venues are as varied as the performances - by the lake, in a church, at the library and inside the theaters built for an enthusiastic arts audience. The need for more performance space led to the construction in 1997 of the Jim Rouse Theatre for Performing Arts in Columbia, which seats 750, and the 100-seat black box theatre in 1998 at the Howard County Center for the Arts in Ellicott City.

Groups often expand their programming and outreach, keeping their eye on community interests.

When the House of Jazz event was first presented 11 years ago as a one-night, one-venue gala, the event was so popular that it grew to a four-day event and spawned the Baltimore-Washington JAZZfest to satiate local jazz lovers.

To nurture the next generation's love for the arts, many organizations offer children's programs, charging little for admission. "We want people to bring their kids to all of our programs so we keep the prices low," said Elaine Newhall, president of the Columbia Orchestra.

Howard's artists - professional and amateur - are passionate about their work. Their energy is exemplified by people like Mark Allen, president, of the Columbia Community Players who has acted with four other local theater companies, and Mo Dutterer, director of Centennial Players, who has directed 24 shows for six companies and appeared in 20 productions.

Next month, the arts council will tip its hat to the arts community at its sixth annual Celebration of the Arts in Howard County.

As Howard's arts groups flourish, still more are destined to emerge, said Barbara Lawson, president of the Columbia Foundation. "There is something in the human spirit," she said, "that has to express itself artistically in any number of expressions."

The following pages offer a sampling of arts organizations and activities in Howard County.

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